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According to the NY Times, computer scientists are developing software that can produce credible paraphrases of English-language texts. Yippee. It's hard enough assigning papers to students today, with the ease of computer-aided plagiarism. It's pretty easy to track down most copying from the internet (do they really think I don't know how to use Google?) though subscription encyclopedia are becoming more popular and are a little harder to get a look at. But paraphrased material can be very hard to track down if it isn't cited.

Some teachers have abandoned research papers entirely in favor of in-class writing, but I find it hard to see how to teach writing about history without students having the time and space to read and consider their sources, develop arguments, and consider alternatives. I don't want to become a writing teacher, spending class after class on the argumentative essay and citation standards; that's what we have writing courses for. But if (when) this tool becomes widely available, I'm going to have to seriously rethink the papers I do assign. I already assign most of my papers based on specific course texts, with questions quirky enough to be hard to find the answers elsewhere (though I have to start changing them, because I suspect there are starting to be copies of answers to my questions floating around). It's tough to be very original, particularly in classes like World Civ surveys where the students have very weak backgrounds in the subject matter, in writing and in analysis. I do what I can, but students don't always appreciate my assigning questions without clearly predetermined answers...

This raises other questions, as well, about the nature of authorship, about the nature of education,  about the automation of supposedly intellectual tasks, and about honor and ethics in modern society. But at the moment I'm really much more concerned with my students' intellectual and ethical development than with first principles and intellectual property.

posted by Jonathan at 10:40 a.m. H.S.T.


The net is largely on a holiday, but do not miss reading Tony Kushner's"The Genius of O'Neill" in the Times Literary Supplement.

I am used to mean-spirited exchanges among the usual suspects on History News Network's comment boards, but when Christopher Hitchens's interview by Jamie Glazov for David Horowitz's FrontPage Magazine was re-published on HNN, it provoked a harsh rebuke by Sean Wilentz and a bitter series of comments by Hitchens, Wilentz, Todd Gitlin, Irfan Kawaja, Richard Wolin, and others. The left intellectuals believe that Hitchens is a turncoat and he rubbed his erstwhile comrades' noses in it by appearing in Horowitz's netrag. The closest parallel I can recall to this is when Garry Wills seemed to abandon his colleagues on the Right at National Review 35 years ago and found a broader audience by appearing to be on the Left. William Buckley then wrote of it more in sorrow than in anger, however, and, truth be told, Wills is still more deeply conservative than Buckley ever was. That could be a warning to Hitchens's critics. He may yet be more radical than thou.

Update: Take heart, the offerings are more gracious elsewhere. At Informed Comment, his indispensable blog about Middle Eastern affairs, Juan Cole has an introduction to the little known history of Christianity in Iraq. If you don't know about Nestorians, Chaldeans, and Assyrians, he can tell you about them.

At Liberty and Power, David Beito looks at the election of 1900 and wonders about options for libertarians and anti-war conservatives in 2004. The choices don't look very encouraging.

Kieran Healey at Crooked Timber knows where the defense planning screw ups occurred.

Tyler Cowen at The Volokh Conspiracy offers an interesting series on"Law and Art." See: here, here, here, and here.

Posted by Ralph 4:00 a.m. EST


Do they move and reproduce like man and woman? Well, no. Like ocean waves, perhaps? Not that either. Sometimes they pass through each other, like a ghost through a wall. Other times, they co-mingle and reproduce. The New York Times has a fascinating piece about what happens when one sand dune meets another. It's a lesson in the problem of analogies.

You say it happened in the 14th century? Oh Lord, there goes my hockey stick. Reactions to Michael Crichton's Commonwealth Club address led to extended discussions on Cliopatria's comment boards (scroll down). There, Jerome Sternstein recommends this article in Technology Review and its supporting links. Good science proceeds slowly, it argues: on the one hand, but on the other ....

The Economist has an interesting piece which compares the internet to 17th and 18th century European coffee houses. I've thought it more comparable to a library. Mildly Malevolent is skeptical about the coffee house analogy, but like him, I find the Economist piece's point about coffee as the anti-alcohol interesting. Give me a fresh pot of coffee, a little stack of cookies, my keyboard, and I'm ready to get at it. I don't know whether I'm in a coffee house or a library, but it seems like where I ought to be.

It didn't end in 1865. It doesn't happen only in Africa's heart of darkness or Islam's lesser realms. It isn't just Walmart on the sly. It is slavery and it's right down here in the heart of Limbaughland. The Palm Beach Post has a three part series on slavery in 21st century Florida. Isn't this where my generation came in? Edward R. Murrow's "Harvest of Shame," Michael Harrington's The Other America, and all that?

So, this veteran of the civil rights and anti-Viet Nam War movements bequeaths problems more complex than his generation's to that of his much loved, many pierced, tattooed, punk, Green, and post-Goth #2 daughter who works at Brooklyn's Soft Skull Press. She is home for Christmas and, briefly, we are whole again. We are so much alike that there are some things that we simply cannot discuss. One of them is this. Don't tell her I sent you, but as we say here in the South:"Vote early and vote often." And, frankly, my dear, Mort Sahl and Rv. Agnos agree with me that "Al Franken is objectively less funny than Al Haig."

Posted by Ralph 1:30 a.m. EST


Cliopatria welcomes Thomas G. Palaima to its group. Palaima is Raymond F. Dickson Centennial Professor of Classics and Director of the Program in Aegean Scripts and Prehistory at the University of Texas. A former MacArthur Fellow, he has also been a Fulbright professor at the University of Salzburg and a visiting professor at the University of Upsalla. Palaima is the author or co-editor of six monographs on ancient administrative and writing systems and decipherment studies. He also teaches and writes on war and violence studies. In addition to many scholarly articles in classical studies, Palaima is a regular reviewer for the Times Higher Education Supplement and regular op ed contributor to the Austin American-Statesman. His op eds have also appeared on History News Network.

Posted by Ralph 12:15 a.m. EST


I am finding myself more and more thankful for Watergate as the years pass.

Not because of any personal animus towards Richard Nixon--my only personal beef with the President at the time was that Watergate hearings used to interrupt my favorite cartoons in the afternoon. I am of course like many unhappy about its legacies: there is no question that late 20th Century American antipathy towards government and politics finds its deepest and most wounding origins in the career of Richard Nixon and the traumas he visited upon his office and his society. Even Nixon's curiously moderate record has to be stacked up against the kinds of political careers he helped set in motion, more than a few of which have come back to haunt us in the current Administration.

My gratitude has to do with the composite impact of the tape transcripts which continue to be made available: 240 more hours were made available to the public this month. That has obvious specific relevance to scholars working on the Nixon Administration, on the US government in the early 1970s, on the history of the Presidency, and so on. But I think it has a deeper relevance, one that has still gone largely unappreciated.

The tape transcripts, taken as a whole, show us an unintended, relatively unmediated view of the interior culture of political power, something that ordinarily historians know almost nothing about whether we're dealing with ancient or recent cases, Western or non-Western societies. Most of the people who have listened to the tapes released in recent years come away with rather ordinary, even banal, revelations about Nixon's character and worldview, more or less confirming things that we already guessed or knew anyway, that Nixon was an anti-Semite, or disliked Kissinger, or that he hated the Eastern Establishment.

What I think is more useful is to begin to think about Nixon not as the atypical, psychologically curious figure that he undoubtedly was, but also to see him and his conversations with aides and visitors as a revelation of what the typical business of political decision-making and information-gathering may look like in its general outlines. Yes, certainly, there is a Nixonian particularity to the more recent transcripts that have been released--it is hard to imagine Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton having quite the same loopily off-the-cuff, awkwardly polite locker room discussions with aides about Greek homosexuality and the character of political enemies and so on. But what I strongly suspect is quite typical about the transcripts is the decidely non-Olympian, non-omniscent perspective they display. The later, non-Watergate tapes tend to show that while Nixon and his aides knew more than the average citizen or the average pundit or the average Congressman about national and international affairs, and had far more ability to move events and institutions in a direction that he desired--that's what power is, in the end--his knowledge and influence were also finite, sometimes strikingly so. I have argued this before, but it seems to me that the total body of tapes offers a fairly striking rebuke to ideas about historical causality that require power to always do that which it ought to do, and to always have a transparent command of the social and cultural landscape it inhabits. The tapes reveal that there were numerous conspiracies within the Nixon White House--but they also tend to undercut a conspiratorial conception of history.

Posted by Timothy 4:23pm. EST


The last time we were in Edgefield, South Carolina, a stranger rushed up to my wife on the street and said:"Why, Miss T, it's so good to see you out today." We hadn't the slightest idea who"Miss T" was and assured the stranger that my wife was not her. The embarrassed stranger told us that"Miss T" was Strom Thurmond's niece, Mary T. Thompkins Freeman, and it was simply a case of mistaken identity. Just between you and me, I prefer it when my wife is mistaken either for Carol Burnett or Barbara Streisand, as she commonly is.

But, finally, we know why almost any stranger on the streets in Edgefield might be mistaken for one of Strom Thurmond's relatives. There are simply a whole lot more of them than the family ever acknowledged. About 30 years ago, I first heard the rumor that he had a daughter of color and had little reason to doubt it. I didn't comment on Essie Mae Washington-Williams's belated acknowledgment that she is the daughter of ol' Strom Thurmond, but this widely reprinted piece in the New York Times about the reactions of the old man's white relatives summons me.

According to"Miss T," my wife's look-alike, Ms. Washington-Williams's announcement was"was like a blight on the family."

"I went to a church meeting the other day and all these people came up to me and you could tell they didn't know what to say," Ms. Freeman said."For the first time in my life, I felt shame."
Ms. Freeman also said that had the secret daughter been white,"it would be a whole other situation," because public criticism would not have been as harsh.
"Strom rose to such stature, you just wonder how in the world this could have gone on," said Ms. Freeman, 64, a retired teacher in Lugoff, S.C."My family always had help around the house. But it just seems Strom would have been above that."
Really, my dear, both you and I have known about this for years. Years of knowing it -- years of Strom's winking and nudging you in the ribs with his elbow -- should have prepared you with something more gracious than this. What astonished me then and astonishes me now is, by contrast, the quiet dignity of Strom Thurmond's oldest daughter. She had deferred to her father's public career for nearly 80 years. Only after his death did she tell their secret. Whether the other Thurmond relatives acknowledge her or not is a matter of some indifference to Ms. Washington-Williams. She knows that she was there first.

Recommended Reading: the interesting discussions of this story, hosted by Kieran Healey and John Quiggin at Crooked Timber, the thoughtful editorial column by Cynthia Tucker in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and this fascinating story of detective work in the Washington Post.

Posted by Ralph 1:30 a.m. EST


I'm really happy to be joining Cliopatria, most of whose members are HNN contributors I've come to deeply respect over the last year or so. I'm deep in the middle of grading this weekend, but I'll be coming out from under shortly. Until then, I'll just open with something that my students know but my colleagues don't....

I'm a life-long science fiction and fantasy fan, with a preference for short stories, and for novels that take exeptionally long historical perspectives. This is an exciting time for an F/SF fan, because the technology now exists to depict on the screen anything that can be pictured in the mind. The reason nobody's made a really good version of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings until now (though I still have a fondness for the old animated version, which is a little more whimsical but no less rich) is that the technological hurdles were too great. The final frontier in movie/TV, though, is not smell-o-rama (though I wouldn't be surprised to see USB-ready aroma peripherals in a few years) but really good emotional and historical and philosophical background/context. Perhaps the DVD, with it's hypertext-like flexibility and supplements, is the format in which the novel will truly be realized on screen.

One of the reasons I still enjoy F/SF is its experimental nature. Not so much as a literary form (I'm pretty conventional when it comes to the writing I like) but as an emotional and historical test-bench."What if" is a far more fundamental question in history than we like to admit (though I'm ironically leery of large-scale alternative history) and futurism is a powerful tool for thinking through the implications of ideas and processes, alternative visions, and the human potential under different circumstances. Plus, why should our imaginations always be limited by convention and reality?

OK, just to give people something to complain about, here's my off-hand, very incomplete list of favorite authors and works: Frank Herbert (Dune series of course, though White Plague is frighteningly, increasingly plausible); Isaac Asimov; some Robert Heinlein (especially his future history series); Harlan Ellison (Deathbird Stories is my candidate for single-author short-story collection of the century); Olaf Stapledon (deep and rich stuff); Ursula LeGuin (Left Hand of Darkness is a mind-bending experience); Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams for humor (also Asimov); Ray Bradbury (indescribably powerful ideas and writing);  Neil Gaiman (probably the finest fantasist at work today, and one of the best word-on-paper writers since Bradbury); Henry Kuttner (energetic writing and ideas that will trouble you for days, if not years) and C.L. Moore, his wife and collaborator and a fine writer in her own right (I'm particularly fond of her Jirel of Joiry stories, which look like pulp fantasy but are much deeper meditations on humanity). I'm a current subscriber to Fantasy and Science Fiction. I'm sure I've left stuff off the list.

OK, back to the grading. Next time, some history, or politics, I promise! Happy Hanukah, everyone!

Posted by Jonathan 10:45 a.m. HST


Cliopatria welcomes Jonathan Dresner to its group. A specialist in modern Japanese history, he earned his doctorate at Harvard and teaches east Asian and world history at the University of Hawai`i at Hilo. Dresner has contributed articles to History News Network and op-eds to History News Service. He is also active in the Association of Asian Studies.

Posted by Ralph 6:00 p.m. EST


I have an article in this week’s Weekly Standardabout a dubious new curricular program called “The Arts of Democracy.” Funded by a Department of Education grant coordinated by an organization called the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), “The Arts of Democracy” teaches students that “democracy” entails support for “diversity” and “multiculturalism” and opposition to U.S. foreign policy. The project performs this task through carefully selected course clusters that present one-sided, politically-oriented messages.

Readers of my postings in Cliopatria might wonder why I seem so concerned with what might loosely be labeled excessive political correctness in both personnel and curricular matters. Partly, of course, my approach to these matters arises out of my tenure case: when an institution tries to fire you for advocating merit rather than gender quotas in hiring and criticizing a college-sponsored educational event on Middle East international affairs that had no supporters of either the US or Israel, you become sensitive to how ideologues can abuse the personnel process. And, as a glance through the cases handled by FIRE suggests, it seems that in the academy today, the threat to academic freedom more often comes from an extremist “left” than from the right.

But I also am so interested in such curricular matters because of the situation on my own campus, Brooklyn College. It never seemed to me a question that the job of a professor was to teach students about academic content rather than behavioral skills or what to think about political “values.” At Brooklyn, now, however, that question is very much up for debate, partly due to the apparent attitude of the campus administration. I’m a believer in Alan Charles Kors’ argument that sunlight—public exposure—is the best way to combat such ideas.

Posted by KC, 12.14pm EST


Happy Chanukka to all of those who celebrate it. As for me, imagine a technically inept academic caught in a tangle of Christmas lights and reaching for his keyboard as a desperate act of self-liberation. I grew up in a rather traditional German-American family which allowed no tree in the house before Christmas Eve and it promptly came down on New Year's Day. All the technical and logistical problems get crammed into a short span. Don't even ask about the family crises when I haven't been able to make the bloody tree stand up for a whole week.

Over at Easily Distracted, Tim Burke expands on his thoughts about"The Return of the King" with a second essay about genre and the problem of what I would call"disciplinary discipleship." Odd that I'd never thought how those two words had the same root. Followers of the same discipline would be disciples, but Burke sees the problem in thinking and working that way. Sure, we need to learn from the learned in apprenticeship, but a follower cannot transcend the achievement of the leader. That's the problem of derivative scholarship and derivative literature. No wonder that the Swiss theologian Karl Barth denied that he was a"Barthian." Lately, I have to kick myself and say:"Don't try to be a Burkean or a Johnsonian. They'll always be better Tim Burkes and KC Johnsons than you can ever hope to be."

Fortunately, my own apprenticeship as a historian was an easy mantle. My dissertation director allowed, even encouraged, me to disagree with him -- to"revise" him, if you will. So, on the one hand, I've never experienced the horror stories of those who ran afoul of rigid taskmasters and, on the other, I've never understood the cry against"revision," as if it were ipso facto distortion. In many, if not most, cases, to do worthy history is necessarily to"revise." Nor do I understand the umbrage some historians take at being challenged. To be challenged, after all, means that the good Lord or fate or happenstance has allowed you to live so long that some reasonably intelligent historian thought that you had once said something that was worthy of debate and has finally gotten the challenge into print. Many historians never have the pleasure of having lived long enough to see themselves"revised." What's wrong with that?

At Atlanta's recent AAR convention, I introduced myself to Oberlin's A. G. Miller. On hearing my name, he smiled and referred obliquely to his new biography, Elevating the Race: Theophilous G. Steward, Black Theology, and the Making of an African American Civil Society, 1865-1924. I first encountered T. G. Steward's legacy forty years ago, when I was interning as an assistant pastor for the summer of Macon, Georgia's First Baptist Church, an African American congregation. Just up Cotton Avenue from us was Steward Chapel A. M. E. Church. In that building named for its early pastor, I heard Martin Luther King, Sr., raise some righteous hell with Macon's white folks. Years later, I wrote a bit about T. G. Steward in The Social Gospel in Black and White: American Racial Reform, 1885-1912.

Miller was kind enough to send me a copy of his fine new book and, behold, I was revised. The larger context for his disagreement with me is this. I surveyed a spectrum of white attitudes in race relations at the turn of the century and identified spokesmen for each position: radical assimilationism (Josiah Strong), conservative assimilationism (Josiah Royce), conservative separatism (Edgar Gardner Murphy), and radical separatism (Thomas Dixon). Based on a definition of what"racism" is, I said that only the separatists, Murphy and Dixon, might rightly be called racists. That definition held that"racism is a pattern of thought that relates mind to matter by making culture a function of physiology." Racial separatists held that people of African descent could not and should not try fully to exemplify high culture as defined by the canons of western civilization. Racial assimilationists held that people of African descent both could and should expect to do so.

My friend, A. G. Miller, challenges my argument that a radical assimilationist, such as Josiah Strong, is not rightly understood as a racist. He and many others by now and by implication would argue that my definition of racism is inadequate. For one thing, it allows for the possibility that some African Americans are racists. If"true culture" is rooted in an Africanist frame, those who reify biological descent would say that we white folk are just out of luck or, at best, in a separate sphere. I cannot fully appreciate the blues, for example, because I am not an African American. Secondly, and by extension, I think Miller would argue that my definition of racism is inadequate because it takes no account of power or structural relationships. Only when racial prejudice wields power is it truly racist. Racial prejudice lacking power is no significant threat.

These are significant issues, I think."Racism" and"racist" continue to be bandied about. We need to understand what people mean by them when they use the words. I still disagree with Miller because I think one must give definitional precision to them, lest they lose all utility. Like the Mother Hubbard dress of yesterday's modesty, they could cover everything, but touch on nothing. Miller does convince me that the problems of a" cultural assimilationist" position are as real as the problems of a" cultural separatist" one, but I still would like to hear a definition from him of what"racism" is. In any case, I am grateful for having lived long enough to witness having been revised.

For the moment, however, this revised historian needs to get to bed and deal with those tangled Christmas lights in the morning.

Posted by Ralph 2:30 a.m. EST


Interesting piece in Slate on, of all things, Vice President Cheney’s Christmas cards, which contain the following quotation from Benjamin Franklin:

And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid?

The article, by Timothy Noah, comments on what I consider one of the most interesting aspects of American diplomatic history, namely the tensions between the consistent expansionism of the United States and the persistent strand of anti-imperialism in American political culture.

My first two books examined Senate anti-imperialists—figures such as Ernest Gruening, Robert La Follette, or George Norris, dissenters who would make the anti-war stance of someone like Howard Dean look tame—and I always ask my classes to consider not only the question of why the United States has embraced empire throughout its history but why its doing so has so consistently stirred domestic opposition.

That said, I agree with Noah that Cheney’s celebration of empire is rare among American policymakers, especially since 1900.

Posted by KC, 9.50pm EST


A speech of Michael Crichton's on the dangers of"religious environmentalism" has been well-received in some conservative and libertarian quarters. If Crichton's speech reflected his own advice within it, environmentalists be scientific I'd have no problem with it.

Instead his Remarks to the Commonwealth Club show him to less an advocate of science and more of a second-rate Ann Coulter or Michael Moore.

The points that he really made were these: (1) most environmentalists are religious airheads, just like Christians, and (2) most people, including most members of the Commonwealth Club, are dumber than Michael Crichton.

The way he made those points was easy. He made scores of unsubstantiated claims. If he had followed his own advice and used science scrupulously to make his points he would have had problems.

For example, the one issue he discusses at length is DDT. He argues that its banning is one example of environmental-religious blindness in that it did not harm animals. But the only"evidence" he gives for this is asserting that it was falsely labeled a carcinogen. That may or may not have been true, I don't know the regulatory history/ But I do know the studies that indicated DDT caused harm concluded that it did so by impairing reproduction, not by causing cancer.

I might not be writing this if he had given even one authority to show that it did not hurt animals. That would have been consistent with his call for a scientific environmentalism. But he doesn't.

Someone reading this might reasonably say,"But in a speech, does he have time to do that? Maybe there is a good study out there that refutes clearly the previous findings on DDT."

Maybe there is. And if any readers know of one I will be happy to post information on it here. I do believe in using science honestly, even when it reveals that I have been wrong.

For the moment, however, Crichton's own words will do for a response. This long excerpt will show his real attitude toward scientific debate and for giving sources. (It will also document my comment about his ego).

I can tell you that second hand smoke is not a health hazard to anyone and never was, and the EPA has always known it. I can tell you that the evidence for global warming is far weaker than its proponents would ever admit. I can tell you the percentage the US land area that is taken by urbanization, including cities and roads, is 5%. I can tell you that the Sahara desert is shrinking, and the total ice of Antarctica is increasing. I can tell you that a blue-ribbon panel in Science magazine concluded that there is no known technology that will enable us to halt the rise of carbon dioxide in the 21st century. Not wind, not solar, not even nuclear. The panel concluded a totally new technology-like nuclear fusion-was necessary, otherwise nothing could be done and in the meantime all efforts would be a waste of time. They said that when the UN IPCC reports stated alternative technologies existed that could control greenhouse gases, the UN was wrong.

I can, with a lot of time, give you the factual basis for these views, and I can cite the appropriate journal articles not in whacko magazines, but in the most prestigeous [sic] science journals, such as Science and Nature. But such references probably won't impact more than a handful of you, because the beliefs of a religion are not dependant [sic] on facts, but rather are matters of faith. Unshakeable belief.

He does have time. He knows it. He chooses not to because he does not respect his audience. He says so himself.

So why have some pretty intelligent people latched onto this speech? I think it's the same reason Coulter and Moore are popular. They pick targets that their audiences hate and caricature them. Crichton chooses those environmentalists who tend to have an Eden-like view of nature, caricatures them, and then implicitly connects them with everybody concerned about the environment, except for himself or course.

Some readers I think saw the caricature, liked it, and didn't look carefully at what followed. It's a mistake I've made.

The sad thing here is that Crichton's a smart man and a rich man. If he truly wants to support good environmental science, he can do much good. But if this is any indication, good science is the last thing on his mind.

PS Here's the link to Science. Crichton is right that it is good. Put Global Warming and CO2 into the internal search engine and ask yourself if he's read it lately.

Posted by Oscar at 12:10 pm CST